"We Are What We See"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 29, 2001

Psalm 85; Luke 11:29-36


     Have you ever tried to imagine what it must have been like to be Jesus? Take yourself back to his period of history, get into his sandals, and walk among his people. Try to imagine the challenges he faced given his perspective on life. How would it feel to sing a solo to an audience that knew nothing of music? How would you teach new insights to people who were steeped in legalistic traditions that were centuries old?

     Lewis Pasteur and Lord Lister found themselves in a similar dilemma when they proclaimed the existence of germs, long before the invention of the microscope. They insisted that their colleagues scrub their hands before seeing each new patient. Such an "absurd practice" was greeted with scorn and laughter by the medical community. It is a challenge to stand alone when you have a passion for what few can see.

     Jesus found himself confronted with two universes. The one featured his understanding of God's created order and humanity's role in it. The other was the understanding of his people who knew only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; an understanding that was defined and well-protected by a powerful priesthood. How can anything new be learned once time-honored thought patterns have assumed an identity of their own? We all know how difficult it is to change our thinking. During every stage of our evolution, we are what we see.

     Actually most of us have walked in Jesus' sandals. We have all known what it is like to feel alone. However, too often many of us have resonated more with our fears than with our passion for being alive. How many of us celebrate the spirit of our individuality, realizing that it is our one-of-a-kind spirit that the world needs? Arriving at such an understanding takes training, openness, and a willingness to take risks. Sadly, our world does not insist that we learn how indispensable each of us really is.

     Do you remember how our adolescent years trained us to conform? Go back to those days and try to remember your feelings and thoughts. In those days our eyes were focused on how we looked, how popular we were, how athletic we were, and how old-fashioned the values of our parents were. Thinking in any other way would have been viewed as "totally not cool."

     Our emotions were up and down, changing almost daily. All we could think about was whether or not we had the attention of the "right boys" or the approval of the "right girls." We found ourselves caught up in a swirling culture that screamed, "Conform or be left behind." So we spent a lot of time trying to be what we thought others wanted us to be. Our need to belong was crucial. We are what we see, even if it is only for awhile. Who among us would ever want to live through those years again?

     Do such perceptions of aloneness belong only to the young? No. We know what it is like to sing a solo when few listeners understand our music. Wives often say, "My husband no longer pays much attention to me." Husbands say, "I wish my wife understood my needs." Seniors say, "So many of my friends and family have moved away or died. My world is shrinking and I cannot stop it. I do not want to give up my independence. Who understands how I feel?" Again, we are what we see.

     We have all experienced such periods of aloneness. What was it that allowed Jesus to stand alone among the masses and share his vision? What prevented him from being seduced by the darkness of fear, the same fear that many of us feed one thought at a time? The answer is that he could not stop being who he was.

     In our lesson, Jesus used two symbols his people readily recognized to illustrate how God's light had been in their midst. He reminded them how the people of Nineveh repented of their sins when they heard the word of the Lord from Jonah. He also reminded them how the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon with one goal in mind -- to listen to his wisdom. In both instances Jesus said, "There is now a truth in the world much greater than either Jonah or Solomon."

     Jesus walked alone, as all of us do, but his passion about God's plan for humanity was so powerful that he could not keep it to himself. His calling was to tell people the truth. His calling was to love them, not compromise who he was in order to fit in socially. In his aloneness, Jesus knew that not everyone would understand his words. He was right. Not many did.

     Jesus taught, "Your eyes are like a lamp for the body. When your eyes are sound, your body is full of light; but when your eyes are not sound, your whole body will be in darkness. Then he added these words, "Make certain, then, that the light in you is not darkness."

     Can we imagine such abstract thinking being understood by people who knew more about sheep, figs, olives, and grapes than about matters of spirit? He was teaching such things 1900 years before anyone was seriously studying the relationship between the mind and the body.

     Today, the question Jesus wanted people to ask of themselves is obvious: What does our understanding enable us to do? When Jesus saw the darkness that ignorance created in people, he decided to educate as many of them as he could. He could do nothing about the darkness, nor could he stop those who continued to perpetuate it. All he could do was stand in the midst of it and shine.

     Listen how our lesson ends, "If your whole body is full of light it will be bright all over as when a lamp shines on people with its brightness." This is our role. This is who we have been called to be for each other.

     What does a person who is full of light look like? Try to imagine what would happen to us if we contented ourselves with being who we are instead of trying to determine what must happen in the lives of others? Imagine how peaceful we would be if we allowed others to negotiate their life-issues for themselves? Imagine how free we would be if we surrendered all others to God's care, choosing never again to waste another moment of our lives worrying about them? Light only illuminates. It is up to those who see the light to respond.

     Some years ago I met a woman who lived this way for most of her life. She once spoke to me about a drama that was taking place in her family. This is what I remember her saying:

My son and daughter-in-law are divorcing. It is a shame. They both have a lot of growing up to do. No one can do that for them. My understanding of love is too old-fashioned for them, I suppose. For me, love was never something you could turn off and on like couples do today.

As soon as something doesn't work or feelings get hurt, out the door they go. Believe me, through the years of my marriage I had plenty of reasons to go out that door. And I am sure I gave my husband plenty of reasons to do the same. Neither one of us did.

Some days we screamed bloody murder at each other, but today we have 16 beautiful grandchildren. Thanksgiving Day is a mad house around here as you might imagine. I would not trade any of this for what might have been somewhere else.

     Here was a woman who knew how to sleep well at night. She knew that people must find their own way, and they were not going to arrive any faster by her worrying about them. Her only judgment was that each of them needed a little more emotional maturity before making such life-changing decisions. And she had not abandoned them because they were making choices that were different from the ones she would have made. Because that is what she saw, that is who she was.

     When our eyes behold darkness, and they will, what is our calling? What was Jesus sending us into the world to do and be? Healers can only heal when they are surrounded by the wounded.

     Every time we sow a smile, give a gentle response that reassures, or show compassion, we are extending the invitation for others to do the same. Such responses give the world hope.

     However, when we get angry, when we dilute our energy with worry, and when we smolder with resentment waiting for a moment when we can strike back with our form of justice, what have we allowed to take up residence in our minds? Jesus said, "When your eyes are not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness." Our experiences tell us how accurate Jesus was. He knew.

     Last week I took a summer course at Wesley Seminary. I was not used to commuting into the District at 7:15 a.m. I faced the same traffic patterns that many of you experience. I simply could not believe the risks drivers were taking with their expensive cars. Every day I saw the results of at least one traffic accident. People were standing around their cars exchanging insurance information right in the middle of rush hour. It was unbelievable!

     There were cameras flashing as people drove through intersections on the red light. There were drivers who deliberately went into lanes that were clearly marked as ending in a half-mile. Then they would trade on the generosity of other drivers whom they hoped would allow them to merge back into the normal lanes. I did not see much courtesy.

     Just as a number of people were committing themselves to another competitive morning, I decided to experiment with something. On that first day, I sang America, the Beautiful. I began to think of all the blessings that I take for granted every day. I actually celebrated the road construction because of what it will mean for tomorrow's drivers.

     Such thoughts made a dramatic difference in my predisposition. They really did! I did not allow the darkness of hostile attitudes to enter my spirit. And they were clearly knocking on the door of my mind each time I watched the insanity that was unfolding all around me. In fact, I practiced mercy on the drivers who acted as though they needed to be some place faster than I did.

     How many of us refuse to radiate light because of all the excuses we manufacture in a moment's notice for not doing so? How many of us allow one reversal in life, one incident that hurts our feelings, or one fearful moment to block out everything else that has made our lives the very envy of so many people on earth? Jesus gave us the responsibility to remain guardians of our thoughts. He said, "Make certain that the light in you is not darkness." He knew that we become what we see.

     Last week I was unsuccessful in trying to locate a quote that Iíve saved since my days in Cheverly. I wanted to send it to a friend as a way of apologizing to her for how frequently I peddle my advice. Very curiously, I found that quote yesterday in a magazine that had just come in the mail. The piece is entitled, Listen. These comments should make us think about the quality of our light. It was written by that well-known author, Anonymous.

When I asked you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked.

When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I should not feel the way I do, you are trampling on my feelings.

When I ask you to listen to me and you feel you have to do something to solve my problems, you have failed me, strange as that may seem.

Perhaps that is why prayer works for some people. It happens because God is mute and does not offer advice or try to fix things.

God just listens and trusts you to work it out for yourself. So please, just listen and hear me. And if you want to talk, wait a few minutes for your turn, and I promise I will listen to you.

     We actually glow when listening with understanding is among the rays we radiate. It is only by light that we illuminate the path for others. Jesus said, "If your whole body is full of light, it will be bright all over." As it was with Jesus, we may stand alone. But it only takes one voice to start the whole world singing. If we can understand that, that is who we will be. Are you a part of that chorus?

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     Thank you, God, for enabling us to understand the horizons of our potential. All of us look forward to a time when your kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. Help us understand that such is your will for us. Also, help us understand that it is we who must brighten the world by making love visible. Teach us that kindness is not mere goodness, it is a power; that forgiveness is not a display of weakness, it is an ability; and that peace is not withdrawal, it is a choice. May we grow into such an understanding that we will bear fruit according to your design. We ask these things through a spirit that is eagerly anticipating the bud, the blossom, and the fruit. Amen.

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Thank you, God, for the fragile moments of life that teach us that we do not have all the answers. Thank you for the challenges that make us stretch beyond our known capabilities. Thank you for the times when our symbols of security dissolve around us and once again, our thoughts must find peace in the unfolding of the unexpected.

     Why is it, O God, that we so quickly respond with frustration when our desires and hopes are being sculptured by other hands? Why is it that we find detours so unattractive? Why is it that we conclude that some experiences are a waste of time? Where are we going? And what is it that is so important that we feel the need to be in places different from where we are?

     As we reflect on our lives thus far, who could have known ahead of time what an adventure life has been! What a joy it has been to look back and see how each piece fits into all the others. As we anticipate our future, help each of us to stand forth with faith, knowing that all of our tomorrows will have pieces that will also fit together neatly. May we radiate such confidence by accepting every moment as our opportunity to mirror your nature to an audience of onlookers whose names we may not know. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .